Amidst the nearly impossible expectations of being The Next Great Pocket Passer, Andrew Luck has spent the better part of his two professional seasons making his way around the league, turning pessimists into believers.
A handful of the latter now reside in the Chiefs’ locker room, where no one needs to tell them how good the Colts’ second-year pro from Stanford really is. They saw it up close and personal on Dec. 22, when Luck visited Arrowhead Stadium and cooly proceeded to carve the defense up every-which-way in a 23-7 victory.
Luck’s numbers from that game weren’t otherworldly; he completed 26 of 37 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown. But his performance there, in addition to the one he had against them as a rookie in 2012, when he completed 17 of 35 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 win, was good enough to not only earn their respect, but also a high compliment from veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers.
“Man, he’s just so poised,” Flowers said. “The way he sits in the pocket, he doesn’t give you that mind-set back there that he’s a young quarterback. He can make all the throws; he’s not scared to make all the throws. He trusts his receivers. That’s what separates him from the rest, man.
“You know you’ve got to be perfect (against him), just like when you’re playing Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Drew Brees.”
Now, NFL players don’t just throw around the names of those guys. The quarterback is king in the NFL, and those guys (and Aaron Rodgers) are considered royalty.
But while no one is placing Luck among the Mt. Rushmore of top quarterbacks just yet, it’s quite possible that the 24-year-old is in that next tier of quarterbacks — and rapidly rising.
That makes the Colts a particularly dangerous opponent for the Chiefs in their first-round playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. The Chiefs understand this, and enter the game respectful of not only Luck’s prodigious talent and deeds this season, but also the familiar scheme-related stuff the Colts borrowed from other teams to tear them up a few weeks ago.
“He’s got that unique combination of size and speed and athletic ability,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He can throw the football on top of that. You’ve got to handle that a certain way.”
If the sign of a truly great quarterback is the ability to make the players around him better, as many football personnel suggest, one could argue the 6-foot-4, 239-pound Luck — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and the heir to Manning’s quarterbacking throne in Indianapolis — is certainly approaching the realm of great.
Since veteran receiver Reggie Wayne went down in October7 with an ACL injury, Luck has guided the Colts to a 6-3 record, while completing 67 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and only one interception in his last four games.
His top two targets — receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener — are young players who, while capable, are hardly considered stars, while the rest of his receiving corps consists of unheralded players like Darrius Heyward-Bey and LaVon Brazill and practice squad guys like Griff Whalen and Da’Rick Rogers.
Even Luck admitted this week that it’s fair to say he didn’t envision the Colts necessarily accomplishing all they have this year — an 11-5 record, an AFC South championship — with the major injuries they’ve dealt with, as the Colts have also lost starting running back Vick Ballard and talented second-year tight end Dwayne Allen for the season.
“If you said, ‘You’re going to lose however many guys and this is what we’ll be doing,’ you would say, ‘Shoot, will we be in the playoffs?’ ” Luck said.
But they are, and by all accounts, Luck is a major reason why, as he has lifted the play of the offense with a no-huddle attack in which he shoulders a heavy burden but seems to handle it all with an uncommonly cool demeanor for a player his age.
“He’s a calm guy,” Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis said. “He believes in his arm, he believes in his offensive line, he believes he can make plays, so he stands back there with composure and tries to take the snaps and deliver to his playmakers.”
Still, like any young quarterback, Luck can be rattled. St. Louis sacked him three times (include one that led to fumble return for a touchdown) and picked him off in the red zone three times during the Rams’ 38-8 demolition of the Colts on Nov. 10.
But shaking Luck’s cool is easier said than done, said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“Luck’s a guy who is beyond his years,” Johnson said. “His mental game is very old-like. He knows what’s going on.”
Several Chiefs have also remarked about Luck’s ability to scramble. Though he did little of it against the Chiefs on Dec. 22, rushing six times for only 5 five yards, Luck — who ran a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 Draft Combine — has rushed 63 times for 377 yards (an average of 6 yards per carry) and four touchdowns this season, impressive numbers for a quarterback.
“He’s a big man who can run,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s a lot faster than people realize.”
But for all of his tools, Luck didn’t need to do the spectacular to beat the Chiefs.
Instead, he just used the same gameplan that most teams have used over the last half of the season to exploit the Chiefs’ defense during their 2-5 finish.
The Colts, like several teams the Chiefs faced earlier, did most of their damage in the first showdown with quick passes, as they often utilized man coverage-beating stack formations to create separation for receivers.
The Chiefs responded with several blown coverages, including a handful of the most obvious gaffes they’ve allowed all season.
“We obviously had a couple problems on what we call stacks there — we didn’t cover right,” Sutton said.
The Chiefs also struggled with “rub” or “pick” routes out of these formations, in which a receiver may run a route directly at a defender in hopes of impeding his progress and freeing the receiver he’s supposed to be covering.
The Chiefs have been seeing plenty of stack formations and rub routes since the bye week, which coincides with when their once-vaunted defense started leaking oil. Defending these concepts demands anticipation, physicality and communication, players say.
“That’s considered a weakness for us, and that’s something we’ve had to work on,” Lewis said. “We’ve been working our butts off trying to get those things corrected and I believe we still continue to work through that.”
But the Chiefs also have to be aware of the threat posed by the Colts’ no-huddle attack, which they ran efficiently at Arrowhead, but should only be amplified because they’ll be playing at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Indianapolis’ difficulties selling out the game aside, playing at home figures to benefit the Colts in a myriad of ways. Not only will the turf field allow the Colts’ receivers to cut easier and play faster for Luck as they look to exploit the Chiefs’ leaky pass defense, but playing in front of a crowd well-versed in how to aid a hurry-up offense (from all of Manning’s years there) figures to make a difference, too.
“Yeah, they are doing a good job of that, especially at home,” defensive end Mike DeVito said. “That’s something we have to be alert for ... and it keeps you off-guard — it keeps you on your toes.”
It’s also something — one of many things relating to the Colts’ offense, actually — that can be directly affected when Luck is taken out of his rhythm, like he was against the Rams.
It will be paramount for the Chiefs to generate pressure, which they were actually able to do some when the teams met a few weeks ago, as the Chiefs racked up a sack and five quarterback hits.
“If you stay in his face and get him moving a little bit — even though he can move around pretty good — you still frustrate him a little bit,” Johnson said. “We play tighter coverage in the back end, get some guys in his face ... it will be a different game.”
The return of outside linebacker Justin Houston, who tied for the team lead in sacks with 11 despite missing the last five games due to injury, should help on that front.
So should the fact the Chiefs just faced the Colts and Luck such a short while ago.
“There’s only so much you can change in this short amount of time so we’re not looking for too much different,” nose tackle Dontari Poe said. “We’re just looking at the old film and trying to fix all the mistakes we had.”